Saving the rainforest… again

Nan and Hugh Nicholson, Terania Creek

Nan:  I call myself a rainforest botanist. But that hides a very long, checkered career of forest activism and other kinds of activism, and being a farmer and a parent. I’m someone who cares very deeply about nature, which is what motivates everything I do. I grew up in Melbourne with parents who were very much into the bush and they brought my brother and I up with a great respect for nature. 

Hugh: One of my fondest memories is getting up before dawn with my Dad and being taken up to Sherbrooke Forest, and walking through the bush and watching lyrebirds and actually stalking them as they were calling and getting close to them displaying. 

Nan: I met Hugh when I was young, and he was interested in the same things, fortunately, another nature nerd. We decided that we wanted to live in the bush early on, and we decided we wanted somewhere in the bush that wasn’t going to burn, because we’re Victorians and knew that everything burns sooner or later. So we thought, Right, we’ll go somewhere wet. And we ended up in the wettest place in New South Wales. 

We came up to the Northern Rivers in 1974 and found this derelict piece of land at the end of Terania Creek road. It was exactly what we wanted. Some of it was good land for growing food, and adjacent to a fabulous piece of rainforest. We erected our little tent, because there was nothing on the land, and we had to try and build something. Whenever we could, we went walking.  It was unbelievably beautiful. 

We kind of just treated the whole Terania Basin as ours, because nobody else went there. One day Hugh went up into the forest and met some foresters who said they were going to come in and log. It was a horrible moment. 

Photo: Ben Belle

Hugh: Two days later we went to the forestry office to find out what their plans were. The plans for Terania Creek were to log it, clear it, burn it and convert it into a eucalypt plantation, which is what they were doing across the rest of the region at that time. They were doing about five hundred acres a year of clear-felling and conversion of rainforest and wet sclerophyll into a eucalypt plantation. 

Nan: I don’t think they realised what sort of an electrifying effect that would have on us. A lot of young city, tertiary educated people like us had moved into the area at exactly the same time, for probably the same reasons, and they didn’t want this to happen either. Although we’d always wanted to be hermits, suddenly we were thrust into a campaign. For me, the primary feeling was; if not me, who? You can’t stand by and let something beautiful or important go. 

Blockades sound sort of magical and exciting and people remember them, but it’s not the blockade that matters, it’s the years of legwork and grinding pain. Writing to politicians, writing submissions, doing publicity, exploring all the different avenues you might use to stop a destructive project. With Terania Creek, it was pretty awful and pretty exhausting. The blockade only happened when we just ran out of answers. 

Hugh: We had weekly meetings for years. There was no organisation as such. It was just a fluid community group. We had a secretary because they owned a typewriter. We were all trying to build houses at the time, make a living, have kids. We had a baby on the hip. That was a really hard slog in hindsight. But it felt like what we were doing was the right thing, and we kept going. 

Forestry notified us when they were planning to come in and log, and that coincided with the Channon market in August. So we told people at the market, ‘If you want to come back to our place and stop it you’ll be welcome.’ People came without going home, came up and slept on the ground in the paddock. By the time Forestry did come, we had running water in the camp, hot water for showers and toilets dug. 

It wasn’t us. It’s this magical thing when you get a critical mass of people interested in an issue. The people with the skills somehow converge. 

Photo: Hugh Nicholson
Photo: Terri Nicholson

You can’t stand by and let something beautiful or important go

Nan: It was an exceptionally dry year of 2018 and 2019. All the green paddocks were just brown, like floorboards. But it still hadn’t occurred to us that this precious little totally wet valley could burn. We’d known it intellectually, because we’d read the scientific papers, and there was evidence from the Terania inquiry which followed the Terania Creek blockade, that Terania Creek basin did in fact burn, on occasion. You could prove that by seeing very large brush-box trees which have tiny little seeds like eucalypts, and they require naked ground to germinate. They can’t just germinate in the middle of a very shady rainforest covered in leaf litter. 

Somebody local who lived up that valley said, ‘I saw a bit of smoke in the bottom of the basin.’ By that evening, she’d posted again saying she could see a glow up on the western side of the basin. Hugh and I drove the 15 kilometres up there and arrived just before dark. And sure enough, the basin was on fire. It looked like the end of the world. This incredibly wet basin, the wettest place in New South Wales, was on fire. We slept that night on a grassy hill on our property up there which adjoins the forest and watched the place burn all night long. It’s still just a horror movie in my head. I still get grief-stricken about it.  We’d fought for this place.

We’d fought for this place. We lived there. We loved it

To watch it be destroyed, because of climate change. That was the thing. We were complicit in this. We didn’t stop it. You can say it has burnt before, but we know that this is going to be more common. 

Hugh: There’s a particular fig tree over in the forest that we’ve loved for years. It was one we found very soon after we first moved to the land. We’d been swimming in the creek and we just went for a wander through the forest and found this amazing strangler fig that still had the remnants of the original tree inside. 

Nan: It had particular significance for our family because we created a coming-of-age ritual with our two kids. At ten, they got to climb up the inside of the tree. You can go right up the chimney and come out a crack at the top and stand on the branches and look out over the canopy. We knew no-one else had done this before in this tree because it was always full of the host. Our adult daughter still says how incredibly important it was, and they’ve used it with their kids.

Photo: Ben Belle

Hugh: There was a point during the fires when the fire had come around and was creeping down towards the huge fig tree. We thought about it, and just about at nine o’clock at night, decided we had to go and do something. So we went up with rakes and cleared around this tree, cleared all the debris out from its buttress roots, and made a little fire-break around it, and saved it. 

Nan: And there was another tree in particular, a very large brush-box, it was five or six meters across at the base at ground level. It was huge. They’ve been dated in Terania Creek between twelve and eighteen hundred years old. We used to take people to visit it. When we first went up there after the fires, we thought, Please let that thing still be there. And it wasn’t, it was just the ribs. The trunk had fallen down into the rainforest still smoking. That was one of the worst moments of my life, seeing that old friend. 

It’s really hard to get your head around that grief. When significant people die, you’re very busy with a funeral and all that, you’re too busy to just cry and cry, which is what I would have done, but I was flat-out trying to rescue our house. And it wasn’t just our house, we knew that if this thing didn’t stop, it was going to come down and wipe out the village.

That was one of the worst moments of my life, seeing that old friend